At rare times, subtle things come together in proportions that feel just right. The thrill we experience at such moments can be called magic. However, all these elements do not fall into place all by themselves. Every detail is orchestrated. The smallest element comes with a purpose. All objects are carefully weighed, and placed where they spontaneously belong. I got this breathtaking feeling on my first training, which began at The Oberoi Grand in Calcutta. Here I grasped the power and beauty of perfection.
‘Marked me with the magic’
At The Oberoi Grand outlets, The Chowringhee Bar and Polynesia, where I finished my grooming, indelibly marked me with the magic of Mr Prithvi Raj Singh Oberoi, ‘Biki’, as he was fondly known to many. Years later, as I negotiated uncertain waters as an entrepreneur, trying to get a destination dining chain on its feet, this magic helped me keep the midnight oil burning. PRS ‘Biki’ Oberoi [who passed away on November 14, 2023, at age 94] inspired a whole industry to choose perfection as the purpose. He inherited the hospitality business from his father, Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi, who pioneered the hotel industry with The Oberoi Cecil in Shimla.
PRS Oberoi inherited the hospitality business from his father Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh OberoiWikimedia Commons
PRS Oberoi travelled extensively and began to slowly feel his way around in the industry. At that time, Indian hotels still fell in the penumbral zone of global luxury. The hotel industry was mostly a world of Indian corporate honchos lobbying with political top brass and bureaucrats. It was haloed but also hazy. There was little transparency in professionalism, but Mr Oberoi unplugged a different cause: he dared the Indian luxury hotel to be a global benchmark.
Uplifting the guest experience to its logical conclusion
Luxury can be raised to an art, driven by the vision of perfection. One such incident I vividly recollect is when I happened to be meeting my samdhi at The Amanora City Complex (Pune) and had a fortunate rendezvous with Mr Oberoi when I witnessed him alighting from his jet to inspect a piece of land for his hotel. What amazed me was his passion and energy at his age when he insisted on negotiating a steep climb all the way to the location, since he wanted to feel in person the scenery that the guest would experience.
He used this finesse in uplifting the guest experience to its logical conclusion. That could involve instantly taking down an entire door of The Polo Bar at The Oberoi (Bengaluru), to blend it seamlessly with the city. Or, it could mean an olfactory welcome for guests with a signature fragrance at the hotel entrance. The ‘Biki’ brand of magic pops up in fine details throughout one’s entire stay at the hotel. He believed that if you care deeply enough, you can catch the elusive ‘Aahh’ moment for a guest.
The Polo Club bar at The Oberoi BengaluruThe Oberoi Group
No detail is too minute to be turned into a monumental experience. Like having tea at The Belvedere Club. You can tell it is an Oberoi property from the way the Darjeeling tea is served, tied in a muslin ‘potlum’, a quiet luxury that I enjoyed whenever I stayed at any of the Oberoi properties. Though the Oberoi service became synonymous with the finest guest experience, Mr Oberoi respected his employees and called them his first customers.
Complete absorption of a subject
To feel his enthusiasm and hunger to delve into a subject, you would have had to meet the great man himself, like I fortunately did at a reception hosted by Mr S.S. Mukherjee (vice chairman, EIH Ltd), and catered to by Oh! Calcutta. It was a pure delight seeing ‘Biki’ relish the Bengali dishes with the enthusiasm of a child. He also patiently learnt the nuances of making Chingri Malai Curry from me while having his lunch. As I shared the recipes of our Oh! Calcutta outdoor menu with him, I wondered at his complete absorption of a subject.
If employees do not believe in their organisation, customers will find it difficult to believe in it too. He mentored many an employee, along the way. OCLD or the Oberoi Centre of Learning & Development has been a cradle of professional growth inspiring generations since 1967. Rated among Asia’s numero uno institutions, it was envisioned by Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi, when the idea of hospitality studies was still a revolutionary one. The combination of subtle observations with a sweeping vision became the hallmark of The Oberoi Group of Hotels. It started with Biki Oberoi but was executed with the same precision, for decades. The outcome is that one of the top three luxury chains in the world is Indian. The result is excellence in every quarter of hospitality and phenomenal brands like the Vilas chain of hotels.
The Oberoi Grand in Kolkata. Though the Oberoi service became synonymous with the finest guest experience, Mr Oberoi respected his employees and called them his first customersThe Oberoi Group
Age did not diminish his keen sensitivity to fine differences. New cuisines stoked his interest, like the cigar smouldering between his lips. I was astonished by his energy. He started the new coffee shop chain, 360, when he was 80, reminding us that age is just another number. Mr Oberoi infused confidence and global vision into the hospitality industry of the country. He made the sky the new limit where closed mindsets had once prevailed. This was his magic which moved me to my core when we took our restaurant chain beyond the Indian borders. I realised we were walking in the footsteps of giants like PRS Oberoi.
They definitely do not make Biki Oberois anymore. However, the magic he created is still working away quietly, luxuriously, in the many fields and the lives he touched.
Anjan Chatterjee is the chief of Speciality Restaurants, which owns Mainland China, Asia Kitchen by Mainland China, Oh! Calcutta, Sigree Global Grill, Café Mezzuna, Hoppipola, Barissh and many more. And yes, he is a foodie! He is at firstname.lastname@example.org